What does Iceland sound like? Leaving aside the constant murmur/trickling/howling of wind and water (with only a minor quantity of birds having returned to the local streams and marshes) one may visit a church and there witness the performance of a male choir with a 100 year old tradition.
This Sunday the Reykholt church staged the performance of the Karlakórinn Söngbræður. The parking lot was packed, an indicator for a truly social event here in the vast landscape of Reykholtsdalur, accredited scenery of the Games of Thrones, close to Icelands second biggest glacier, Langjoküll.
The church was accordingly packed, and we just managed to sneak in right behind the singers just taking their places on a metal contraption set up in front of the altar.
Faced with a triple row of sturdy, stout men with mostly grey hair and deeply lined faces, – donned in black trousers, black shirts and astonishingly silvery-grey ties – I tried to count them. First count gave 36 of them, second 39 and the third count amounted to 42 men, conductor included. Counting was difficult because some of them were very short… and sort of disappeared behind the additional musical props: a piano, a tiny organ and a harmonium. All of these were members of the local community, mechanics, shop keepers, farmers, the greater part of them well beyond their mid-sixties.
Placed to the left and right was exactly one glass of water for the convenience of the solo singers before they stepped forth to deliver their performance. A professional recording set-up framed the whole scene:
Needless to say but true as always: as soon as I switched on the mic, the pains of a field recordist started…
The lady next to me wore an hearing aid that gave constant feedback noises. The lady in the aisle opposite rubbed her shoes that had squeaking soles repeatedly against the legs of the chair in front of her. The old man to the right had a cough… which he tried to suppress bravely but not so successfully. One lady was searching her bag for chewing gum or similar, and of course, the soft rustling of the program paper sheets from time to time.
Yes, there was singing. And there was an enthusiastic conductor who looked suspiciously Finnish with his sleekly back combed hair. Holding a concert in Iceland is a serious matter. And because it is so serious and because Iceland has ever since the Viking times been a berth of song and poetry, a man must step forth to deliver series of long poems and/or poetical historic counts in between the songs. At least this was what happend. Almost everybody listened with due attention. I noticed though, after the third speech (all performed by the self same man stepping down from the stage to a speakers desk) that some of the choir members exchanged little twinkles among themselves.
The line-up of songs included classical works by Bellman, Grieg, Christiani and Pfeil – partly melancholic and partly very “traditional” melodies. I was wondering whether is was the protestant nature of the Icelanders that made for this homely but rather unexperimental choice. Shortly before the break the program extended into internationalism.
“Funiculi Funicula” by Luigi Denza was sung with such lively commitment that it was pure fun. Another unexpected climax came with a piece that reminded me of a Freddy Mercury arrangement… amazing Icelandic stuff: Núna by Magnús Einersson. Almost surreal, I’d say. Responsible for the astonishing dynamics of this concert and seemingly enjoying his job was the conductor. A man in his late thirties and a born entertainer who made the ladies giggle in gleeful excitement. While conducting he jumped up and down, waved his arms, bend his knees and sometimes it seemed as if he was about to take off into the air.
After the break this elevated international spirit was kept up to find an insanely decelerated climax in the interpretation of “Unchained Melody”. Ok, I am a field recordist listinging mostly to vapours, waters, birds and machines… and yes, it was hard to ascertain the language as English. So it was my comrade artist friend who pointed out the title of this stunning new interpretation. I can never decide how to approach cultural performance properly, either with a laughing or a weeping eye. Here come my five favourite picks. You may listen and decide for yourself.
P.S. I hereby express my thanks to the church of Reykholt for the permission to record the concert.
Plus: This is the link to the local announcement with a picture of the newly formed Karlakkorinn.
Choir singing Söngbræður concert in Reykholt tonight, April 19, starting at 20:30. The concert is to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Söngfélagið Bræðurnir of Reykholtsdal. The choir was founded by Bjarni Bjarnason from Skáney and was under his direction until 1958. Bjarni who was born in 1884 in Hurðarbaki in Reykholtsdal, married Helga Hannesdóttur from Deildartunga. They began farming Skáney in 1909. Bjarni was reputed a wise and energetic farmer, visionary and enterprising, with a wife of invaluable strength and energy. Bjarni was endowed with exceptionally high and good musical talent. He began working as an organist in Reykholt already as a young man and served as organist and choirmaster in the seven decades of the church and also in other churches around Borgarfjörð.